Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2012.
ISBN: 978-4424-0892-0

Plot Summary:
Aristotle and Dante meet at the pool one summer when Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim.  They soon find that they are total opposites, but they develop a strong bond as their friendship grows.  Ari is drawn to Dante’s self-assured demeanor as Ari struggles with his identity and with relationships in his family.  Dante is able to help Ari break down the barriers that he has built as they discover that the universe is a huge and complicated place.

Critical Analysis:
Benjamin Alire Sáenz writes a beautifully complicated story of loyalty, love and friendship.  Ari and Dante are both complicated characters who evolve gradually through Sáenz’s excellent writing.  The relationship between Ari and Dante is handled very carefully as they each discover the power of their friendship.  The secondary Latino theme is genuine as the characters search for their cultural identity as well.  The relationship between Ari and Dante is handled delicately as they slowly discover their growing feelings for each other.  The story is told skillfully and with genuine honesty that will touch readers as they enjoy this emotionally revealing masterpiece.
Review Excerpts:
"A tender, honest exploration of identity and sexuality, and a passionate reminder that love—whether romantic or familial—should be open, free, and without shame." ~Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Meticulous pacing and finely nuanced characters underpin the author's gift for affecting prose that illuminates the struggles within relationships." ~Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Sáenz writes toward the end of the novel that “to be careful with people and words was a rare and beautiful thing.” And that’s exactly what Sáenz does—he treats his characters carefully, giving them space and time to find their place in the world, and to find each other...those struggling with their own sexuality may find it to be a thought-provoking read." ~Booklist

“Ari’s first-person narrative—poetic, philosophical, honest—skillfully develops the relationship between the two boys from friendship to romance." ~The Horn Book

American Book Award Winner
Stonewall Book Award
Pura Belpre Award
Michael L. Printz Honor

**Other books by Benjamin Alire Sáenz:
Names on a Map: A Novel
Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood
He Forgot to Say Goodbye
In Perfect Light

DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Does My Head Look Big in This? New York: Orchard Books, 2005.
ISBN: 978-0-439-91947-0

Plot Summary:
Sixteen-year-old Amal is an Australian-born, devout Muslim.  She is smart, funny, popular at school, speaks her mind and is a loyal friend, but when she decides to wear the hijab, or headscarf, full-time, everyone has an opinion about it.  Her world changes entirely as she encounters misconceptions and prejudice about her religion and culture - all because of “a piece of cloth.” As if dealing with the usual teenage drama were not enough - cute guy, shopping with friends, academics, parents who hold on a little too tightly - she must now defend her decision to parents, friends, and school administrators.  Amal stands by her decision to deepen her faith no matter what and in the process learns something about her emotional and spiritual fortitude.  Told with humor and sensitivity, this is a story that is sure to challenge any preconceived notions about the Muslim faith.
Critical Analysis:
Randa Abdel-Fattah does an excellent job of portraying the challenges that Amal encounters because of her decision to wear the hijab in a post-9/11 world.  The story is believable and accurate and addresses stereotypes that are often applied to people of the Muslim faith and culture.  References to traditional Muslim holidays such as Ramadan and to Muslim foods and occasional Arabic language contribute authenticity to the story.  Amal is very funny and entertaining as she draws readers into her life and her innermost feelings about her world.  The story conveys not only Amal’s angst as she reconciles her decision to wear the hijab, but also the usual teenage experiences that any 16-year-old encounters.  Abdel-Fattah brilliantly shares an inside look Amal’s wish to just be accepted for who she is by her friends and family.  A quick and delightful read that should be experienced by all.   

Review Excerpts:
“Amal is an appealing and believable character. She trades verbal jibes with another girl, she is impetuous and even arrogant at times, and she makes some serious errors of judgment. And by the end of the story, she and readers come to realize that "Putting on the hijab isn't the end of the journey. It's just the beginning of it."—School Library Journal

“More than the usual story of the immigrant teen's conflict with her traditional parents, the funny, touching contemporary narrative will grab teens everywhere.” ~Booklist (starred review)

"Using a winning mix of humor and sensitivity, Abdel-Fattah ably demonstrates that her heroine is, at heart, a teen like any other. This debut should speak to anyone who has felt like an outsider for any reason." ~Publishers Weekly

**More books about the teenage Muslim experience:
Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Janmohamed
Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah
The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook by Dilara Hafiz
Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos


Lyon, George Ella. The Pirate of Kindergarten. Ill. by Lynne Avril. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.
ISBN: 978-1-4169-5024-0

Plot Summary:
Ginny is in Kindergarten and “loves Reading Circle,” but she sees two of everything, including words.  When she reads aloud, her classmates laugh at her because she says the words twice - just like she sees them.  Sometimes she trips over chairs because she’s not sure which chairs are really there.  Ginny wonders if her classmates see two of everything also.  Then the school performs vision screening and the nurse discovers that Ginny has something called “double vision” that causes her to see two of everything.  Ginny’s mother takes her to the eye doctor where “just exercises, glasses, and for a while, a patch” are prescribed to fix her double vision.  Ginny wears the patch confidently and becomes the “Kindergarten Pirate” who “does numbers, and scissors, … and reads and reads and reads.” 

Critical Analysis:
In this Schneider Family Book Award winner, George Ella Lyon shares a lovely story based on events from her childhood.  She conveys the story of Ginny’s vision difficulties with insight and empathy.  She accurately portrays the world from Ginny’s point of view, accompanied by the brilliant mixed media illustrations of Lynne Avril.  Just as Ginny sees two of everything in the beginning, so the reader experiences this also as the illustrations are blurry and contain doubles.  After Ginny’s visit to the eye doctor, the illustrations are clear and vibrant.  The vivid and bold pictures convey the confidence that Ginny feels as the “Kindergarten Pirate” after her vision is being corrected.   This is an important story to be told, but especially for young readers who have vision difficulties.

Review Excerpts:
“Based on Lyon’s own experience, the sensitively written story radiates empathy and good humor. Even children who have not experienced Ginny’s problem will understand her occasional frustration and find it intriguing that one person can literally see the world differently from another.” ~Booklist

“Lyon's short, descriptive sentences set up the situation deftly, and Avril's astute chalk, pencil, and acrylic drawings of "two of everything" provide a vivid window into Ginny's pre-treatment world. It is not until the end of the story that Ginny declares herself a pirate, but as a metaphor for confidence and competence, her patch effectively declares her to be captain of her own ship.” ~School Library Journal

Schneider Family Book Award

**Other books about children with disabilities:
Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism by Laurie Lears
Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome by Clarabelle van Niekerk

**Books about children with vision challenges:
Jacob’s Eye Patch by Beth Kobliner Shaw
The Patch by Justina Chen Headley
My Travelin’ Eye by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Lin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2009.
ISBN: 978-0-316-11427-1

Plot Summary:
Minli lives with her parents in a tumbledown shack where they are very poor and barely have enough food to eat.  Minli’s mother constantly complains about their “poor fortune,” but her father tries to lighten the mood each evening by telling folktales of enchanted lands and magical characters.  Hoping to help her family, Minli sets out on a quest to find the Old Man on the Moon and ask him how to change her family’s fortune.  With help from a talking goldfish, a flightless dragon and other characters and creatures along the way, Minli learns the value of faith and friendship.  Lin gives readers a good dose of fantasy, interspersed with tales based on traditional Chinese folklore throughout the book.  Her bold illustrations punctuate the beginning of each chapter and set the tone for the enchanting narrative that follows. 

Critical Analysis:
Grace Lin uses a combination of enchanting, fantastical storytelling with traditional Chinese folklore to carry readers on an adventure reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.  The plot follows Minli on her quest to change her family’s fortune.  Ms. Lin develops Minli into a strong female protagonist who is intelligent and loyal.  The authenticity of the setting is enhanced by the beautiful drawings of Lin’s prior to each chapter.  The mystical creatures such as the talking goldfish and the flightless dragon, along with the greedy monkeys and the “Buffalo Boy” add to the enchanted feel of the story.  Grace Lin’s elegant writing flows simply and proves she is an award-winning storyteller. 

Review Excerpts:
“The author's writing is elegant, and her full-color illustrations are stunning. Minli's determination to help her family, as well as the grief her parents feel at her absence, is compelling and thoroughly human.” ~School Library Journal (Starred review)

“With beautiful language, Lin creates a strong, memorable heroine and a mystical land. Stories, drawn from a rich history of Chinese folktales, weave throughout her narrative, deepening the sense of both the characters and the setting and smoothly furthering the plot.” ~Booklist (Starred review)

Newbery Honor Book 2009

**Other novels by Grace Lin:
The Year of the Dog (A Pacy Lin Novel)
The Year of the Rat (A Pacy Lin Novel)
Dumpling Days (A Pacy Lin Novel)

Starry River of the Sky

TIGER WOMAN by Laurence Yep

Yep, Laurence. Tiger Woman. Ill. by Robert Roth. Bridgewater Books, 1995.
ISBN: 0-8167-3464-X

Plot Summary:
Based on a Shantung folk song, Laurence Yep tells the story of a greedy and selfish old woman who refuses to share her bean curd with a hungry beggar.  She warns him that she is a tiger when she is “famished” and then pokes him with her chopstick and sends him on his way.  He speaks a curse on her that she will “be what you say you are.”  The curse takes shape in a variety of forms as the old woman learns a valuable lesson about greed and selfishness.  Told in a mixture of prose and verse, with whimsical watercolor illustrations, readers will be on the edge of their seat to see what happens to the old woman.

Critical Analysis:
Yep uses his award-winning storytelling techniques to relay this tale in spirited narrative along with beautifully rhyming couplets and verse.  The tale is humorous, yet teaches an important lesson about selfishness and greed.  The story is an accurate interpretation of a folk song containing rhythm and detail and Yep accurately portrays the traditional tale without being stereotypical.  Roth’s colorful, double-page, watercolor illustrations propel the story forward and will delight readers with whimsical scenes throughout the tale. His attention to detail is evident in the expressions on the faces in each scene - both in the animals and the humans. A gripping page-turner, this story is one children and adults will beg to read again.

Review Excerpts:
“Full of color and motion, Roth's illustrations partner Yep's spirited storytelling for a rollicking good read.” ~Publishers Weekly

“Yep's rollicking narrative, interspersed with couplets and verse, is smooth and crisp. He has an ear for rhythm and adds just enough detail to enhance the tale.” ~School Library Journal

** Other tales from China:
The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty & the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep, ill. by Kam Mak
Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China by Ai-Ling Louie
The Man Who Tricked a Ghost by Laurence Yep, ill. by Isadore Seltzer
The Khan’s Daughter: A Mongolian Folk Tale by Laurence Yep, ill. by Jean Tseng and Mou-Sien Tseng

** A book about Laurence Yep:

Meet Laurence Yep (About the Author) by Alice B. McGinty